Mustard: Cutting It and Otherwise
by Marjorie Dorfman

Mustard’s no good without roast beef.
– Chico Marx, Funny Business

Where did mustard come from and why is it yellow? If you’ve never thought about these things, it’s probably because you can’t see the forest for the trees, or in this case, the mustard for the hot dog, hamburger or whatever. Read on for some answers and a new respect for one of America’s most popular spices.

If you’ve ever wondered where the expression "to cut the mustard" came from, you can stop right this minute. It’s another way of saying to accomplish or to meet expectations. Its true origins, however, go back to the turn of the last century when to be the proper mustard was a slang phrase meaning to be the real thing, possibly because some mustards of the period did not contain the purest ingredients. O’Henry coined it in 1907 in Heart of the West where he speaks of "looking around and finding a proposition that exactly cut the mustard." The English name, mustard, is derived from a contraction of the Latin mustum ardens, meaning burning wine. This is a reference to the spicy heat of the crushed mustard seeds and the French tradition of mixing the ground seeds with must, the unfermented juice of wine grapes. Be that as it may, the word refers to many things besides the spice, which has the most amazing significance of all.

The mustard seed is a prominent reference for those of the Christian faith, exemplifying something small and insignificant, which when planted, grows in strength and power. German folklore advises a bride to sew mustard seeds into the hem of her wedding dress to insure her dominance of the household. In Denmark and India, it is believed that spreading mustard seeds around the exterior of the home will keep out evil spirits. (If you add crushed garlic to the mixture, any vampire hiding out in your house will immediately fall down and die.) The ancient Chinese considered mustard an aphrodisiac. This is certainly a far cry from the Marx brothers and their clamor for roast beef sandwiches!

Mustard gas was coined by British soldiers in World War I, who thought the poisonous gas made by mixing ethylene with disulfur dichloride smelled a bit like English mustard. It is in no way connected with the mustard seed which as you know by now was too busy doing other things for other people in faraway lands. According to Barry Levinson, curator of the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum, secret documents recovered from German scientists at the end of World War II indicate that they were working feverishly on a new and even more terrifying weapon of mass immobilization. It was mayonnaise gas, whose victims were said to become limp and/or very boring either after inhaling or placing it anywhere near their mouths!

In all seriousness, mustard is the second most-used spice in the United States, its popularity exceeded only by the peppercorn. If you really think about it, what good is a hot dog, hamburger or almost any kind of meat sandwich without it? Nothing very memorable is the answer and it would appear that Chico Marx was absolutely right. Perhaps even beyond its unique taste is the fact that mustard works well with all types of meats; pork, seafood and poultry. It provides tremendous flavor in exchange for few calories and little fat. One gram of mustard flour contains just 4.3 calories. Mustard itself contains no cholesterol, only trace amounts of vegetable fat and is between 25-35% protein, depending on the variety of plant. Leaf mustard contains calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamin B.

Mustard is made from the seeds of a plant in the Cruciferae family. Some cousins once or twice removed include cabbage, turnips and radishes. There are almost forty different varieties of this yellow-flowering plant that botanists classify into the genus, Brassica. Nearly all of the mustards found in supermarkets however, come from only three of these varieties: Brassica nigra, Brassica juncea or Brassica hirta. Brassica nigra produces only black mustard seeds, while Brassica juncea yields only brown seeds. The seeds of Brassica hirta are always yellow and used in the making of milder mustards. All parts of the plant are edible; including seeds, leaves and flowers. (Some say even the mustard growers themselves are edible, but this rumor can only be traced to the hearsay of jealous ketchup makers.)

Mustard is the oldest condiment known to the human race, although no one knows for sure who first used it to flavor food. It is believed to have originated in ancient Egypt where seeds have been found in the tombs of the ancient pharaohs. Prepared mustard dates back to the Romans, who ground the seeds and mixed them with wine to create their own pasty blend of crude sauces. The spice was then spread throughout Europe via their conquering legions.

It was at first considered to be a medicinal plant rather than a culinary one. In the sixth century BC, Greek scientist, Pythagoras, used mustard as a remedy for scorpion stings. Later, Hippocrates utilized it in a variety of medicines and poultices. Mustard increases blood circulation, hence its use as a mustard plaster, which is a dressing used to bring increased blood flow to inflamed areas of the body. In the ancient world they were applied to "cure" toothaches and a number of other ailments.

Prepared mustard, as we know it today began in Dijon, France in the 13th century and is credited to the efforts of one man, Jean Naigeon. However, the monasteries of the region probably developed the art of mustard making much earlier. Naigeon’s major accomplishment was that he substituted verijuice, the sour juice made from unripe grapes, for the usual vinegar used to grind the mustard seeds into a thick paste. The result was a less acidic and smoother tasting mustard. In fact, the term Dijon Mustard refers to this recipe and not to the city itself. The state enacted strict laws to govern the methods of making mustard and the ingredients allowed in its manufacture. Even today, French law regulates that only the brown seed can be used in the production of Dijon mustard. Over the years, the French have brought mustard making to new culinary heights and today Dijon mustard is the standard against which all mustards are measured. (Do they really cut it though? I’m afraid that only their hairdresser knows for sure!)

The English have developed their own style of mustard down through the ages. It was originally made in homes or monasteries, with little commercial gain involved. In the mid 1600s, the town of Tewksbury in Gloucestershire became famous for its thick horseradish mustard that was the rage of English cookery. Shakespeare (a mustard lover himself) wrote; "His wit is as thick as Tewksbury mustard!" (Henry IV, part II). The greatest name in English mustard however, came in the early 19th century when Jeremiah Colman began milling seeds at Norwich, England. The Colmans were the first to mill the heart of the seed into a fine powder known as mustard flour. Through the use of brilliant marketing techniques, theirs became the quintessential English mustard. Its most famous advertising campaign was The Mustard Club, a whimsical, fictitious coterie of odd characters (Master Mustard, Lady Di Gester and its president Baron de Beef, to name a few.)

Mustard use in America evolved differently. First of all, very little was used until the beginning of the twentieth century. Francis French, a New York spice merchant, developed a mild yellow mustard sauce that quickly caught the attention of the American public. French’s Cream Salad Mustard became the national rage. At the same time, J.W. Raye was producing a similar sauce for the sardine packing industry. Some claim that Mr. French and Mr. Raye entered into a "gentleman’s agreement" under which French promised to keep away from the then lucrative sardine market and Raye did the same with respect to the then speculative domestic household market. French’s destiny is of course, very clear, but the Raye Company is no slouch by any means and has survived the competition with its own line of specialty mustards.

So whether you prefer mild or spicy, cut your own mustard or have someone come in once a week to do it, the mustard in your life must be treated with respect and reverence. Place it in a prominent place in your cupboard or refrigerator. The next time you bite into a meat sandwich slathered with the wonderful concoction, close your eyes and think of the ancient pharaohs. They too probably experienced the very same sensations. If you don’t have that kind of imagination, then think of Chico Marx. If he can’t make you enjoy the mustard, then at least he can make you laugh!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2004